Top 10 things of 2021 (So Far)

Twice a year- once in June and once in December- I make a list of ten things I liked this year. While the lists sometimes include movies I haven’t otherwise reviewed, it’s mostly a chance to talk about the television, music, podcasts, and books I recommend anyone check out. 

TV

Cobra Kai, Season 3 (Netflix)

Cobra Kai is the kind of show I would have never expected I would like. I’ve only seen The Karate Kid once, I haven’t seen any of the sequels, and I don’t have any nostalgia for the ‘80s (I wasn’t there!). But Cobra Kai, which follows the karate shenanigans of the now-middle age characters of Karate Kid and their children, is a delight. It’s a ridiculously fun soap-opera drama, full of ridiculous and cheesy ‘80s references that somehow aren’t obnoxious. How is that? The show purposefully explores how these characters are stuck in the past. The references and obsession about their past are fun for the audience, but the show itself uses them to show how pitiful Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) can be, and how their refusal to move on from their past manifests in their children. 

An exploration of generational trauma sounds like a weighty topic for such a light show, yet the show pulls it off, balancing serious drama with amazing stunt work and comedy. The whole ensemble is excellent, with the young cast, led by Mary Mouser and Xolo Marideuna, being especially strong (and Courtney Henggeler is a scene-stealer). Season 3 spends too much time setting up the next season, and the show’s attempts to counteract criticisms of cultural appropriation by having Danny taking a trip to Japan ends up weighing down the season, but the series is so strong that even a weaker season is worth recommending.

Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

The common theme in this list is fun surprises. Just like I had no real background knowledge or expectations for Cobra Kai, I had never read Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone books before deciding to tune into the first season of the eight-episode Netflix show. The young adult fantasy series is about Alina (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who realizes she is actually a Grisha, a magical being with elemental powers. She is whisked away from everything she’s ever known to be trained by the mysterious General Kirigan (Ben Barnes). Meanwhile, a trio of criminals set off to find Alina for their own purposes.

Besides the big budget, which allows for stunning fantasy sequences, the best thing about Shadow and Bone is the cast. There’s not a weak link here, but Ben Barnes as Captain Kirigan may be the best surprise. I’m tired of men in young adult franchises (which are usually female-oriented) who ridicule the property and their roles (looking at you, Robert Pattinson in Twilight). In contrast, Ben Barnes plays his role with total seriousness and sincerity, and it’s clear he and the rest of the cast are having a blast, which in turn makes it more enjoyable for the audience. Kit Young and Amita Suman are also standouts. If you’re looking for a binge-worthy fantasy epic with some confusing worldbuilding but big emotions, complex relationships, and thrills, Shadow and Bone will certainly scratch that itch. 

Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)

Like many great detective stories, HBO’s Mare of Easttown stars a grizzled and weary defender of good in a small town full of secrets and hidden darkness. And like the town she protects, Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) has some secrets and darkness of her own. As she investigates the murder of a young woman and the disappearance of two others girls, Mare constantly wrestles with pursuing the truth, even when it comes at the expense of her friends and family. Her attempts to love those same people are what make the show incredibly moving. There are uneven parts of the series– Evan Peters is a little underwhelming, Guy Pearce feels out of place at times, and sometimes the show takes detours that don’t pay off for a while. But attention to detail and a strong spiritual undercurrent, as well as an astounding finale, make it a rewarding must-watch.

WandaVision (Disney +)

The great Marvel-Disney+ show experiment officially kicked off in January of this year with the release of WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprising their big-screen roles as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Vision. Even those of us who were familiar with the comic book inspiration the show was drawing from and knew the conceit of the show–Wanda creates an alternative reality that plays out her and Vision’s life in the style of different American sitcoms– were shocked by how weird the show is. It leans fully into the premise and does not coddle the audience until late in the game. Unfortunately, the show loses its nerve at the end and opts for a big Marvel CGI-battle instead of sticking to its guns, and the whole series suffers for it. But even though the ending is a bit of a dud, there is much to like here. Olsen is marvelous, effortlessly slipping into each decade of acting styles. Bettany, who has been underrated for a long time, gets a few moments to shine. Kathryn Hahn (who is now Emmy-nominated for her role here!) is the ace up the show’s sleeve. WandaVision isn’t able to totally reinvent the wheel, but it is a charming oddity in the ever-expanding world of Marvel and a promise of the potential of the Marvel-Disney+ experiment.

Books

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey

I can’t stop thinking about The Echo Wife. It’s a small, tightly written story with a limited cast of characters, but enormous ideas regarding medical ethics, artificial life, femininity, marriage, and recovering from abuse. The book is about Evelyn, a scientist who discovers that her husband Nathan made a clone of her and then had an affair with this clone (named Martine). The clone is a more docile, gentle, nurturing and submissive version of Evelyn. When something happens to Nathan, Evelyn and Martine must work together. They must confront the differences, and similarities, between them as they untangle their connection to Nathan and their own senses of self. If you want an uneasy, twisty, character-driven science fiction story, in the vein of a movie like Ex Machina, I highly recommend checking out The Echo Wife.

Who is Maud Dixon?, by Alexandra Andrews

In Who is Maud Dixon?, the trope of the “genius eccentric loner asshole artist” is put on trial. Florence, an aspiring writer, takes a job being the assistant of a mysterious author who writes under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. This author is the classic egotistical, tempestuous writer. But it turns out, so is Florence. As these two women fight over the mantle of Maud Dixon, in a beautiful Moroccan setting, author Alexandra Andrews slyly examines the myth of the author and the real price of creativity and ambition. A fast-paced, easy read, this is a “beach read” in the best sense of the term.

Raft of Stars, by Andrew J. Graff

Following in the tradition of boyhood adventure novels like Huckleberry Finn or Hatchet, Raft of Stars follows two young boys- Fish and Bread- as they escape into the woods after they think Bread’s father has been murdered. At first, the book’s attempt to pay homage to its literary influences feels overdone, but slowly the novel hits own stride, especially as it shifts its focus onto the winsome adult ensemble who are chasing the boys– Tiffany, the self-reliant gas station clerk and secret romantic; the haunted Sheriff Cal; Fish’s tough-as-nails grandfather Teddy; and Fish’s gallant mother Miranda. Author Andrew Gaff plays with genre tropes to fashion a story that, while sweetly-old fashioned in some ways, also gives a more inclusive, thoughtful update to the classic adventure novel. It’s literary but also very cinematic, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was adapted to the big screen soon, so check it out before then!

Podcasts

The Improvement Association, from Serial 

From Serial, the hit true-crime podcast that helped launch the age of true-crime podcasts, comes this more modest, intimate story of election fraud and small-town politics. Hosted by Zoe Chance, the series follows the allegations of election fraud in Bladen County, North Carolina, where a Black political activist group is the subject of suspicion and disdain by white citizens, and trust is broken across races and political parties. The Improvement Association refuses to be sensational or to manipulate viewers with explosive twists and accusations. Chance carefully looks into every lead and logically breaks it down. She’s not the most exciting narrator or storyteller, but she is a trustworthy one that feels steady and reliable, and she clearly cares for the people she encounters, even at their most irritable or eccentric. These five episodes are perfect if you want a better understanding of the mess American politics is in, told in a measured, methodical yet personal way, on a small-scale.

In God We Lust, from Wondery

In God We Lust, meanwhile, is the exact opposite of The Improvement Society when it comes to reporting. While TIS strove to provide a factual, balanced, restrained narrative, In God We Lust is like sitting by the pool with your friend after having one too many margaritas as she recalls a scandalous story she heard second-hand. Hosts Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams are fabulous guides who add plenty of color commentary to the central story: the story of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becky Falwell’s affair with Giancarlo Granda, a young pool attendant they met on vacation. What unfolds is a murky, juicy story at the intersection of all sorts of hot-button issues: #MeToo and sexual harassment, Christian institutions, Donald Trump, Christian leaders and wealth, and purity culture. There’s a lot here to think about, especially if you’re a serious Christian who cares about these issues. But the hosts don’t do much to prompt thoughtful discussion or questions; they’re more prone to laugh at the scandal than lament it. So if you do listen, enjoy it at face-value, but dig deeper into what this story really can be mined for.

Movies

Inside, (Netflix)

Comedian and writer/director Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside has been called a lot of things. A genre-bending meta-examination of comedy (true). Auteur achievement (true). A catchy musical (true). Inside is a fascinating examination of the internet and internet culture, and there are many reviews out there that break down its layers that I would recommend checking out. But there is something I haven’t seen discussed yet, so I want to bring it up here, which is the theme of “humiliation” throughout the film. 

I’m going to define humiliation here on more spiritual terms: humiliation is not just feeling embarrassed or having your ego bruised, it is the feeling of the gap between how you are being treated, and what you deserve. Humiliation is a betrayal of dignity. If we believe all humans have inherent worth and dignity, then humiliation is when someone is treated with less-than that deserved dignity, either by having to treat themselves poorly or by being treated that way by others.

The special starts with Bo Burnham (or, his protagonist character) making fun of comedians who are white guys with a lot to say (like him). It starts as typical form of self-deprecation, the kind we as the audience usually appreciate, with our love of self-awareness. Then the special moves deeper into Bo’s conflicted feelings about the internet. He started his comedy career making internet videos, and now he’s having to examine himself and his complicity in the space he is now ambivalent about. There’s the humiliation of examining yourself and realizing, Oh no, I’m embarrassed with how I have made my living and how it’s contributed to something bad and shallow. This self-examination creates doubt and begs the question: Can I ever be truly authentic?

Then the special digs into Bo’s mental illness and how his panic attacks made him quit performing comedy, and there’s that gap again, the gap of my body and mind has betrayed me, this is not how it should be, I deserve better. There is humiliation in being impaired in this way, and even more humiliation in wanting to tell people the truth of your experiences, but not wanting to be pitied. Then at the end of the show, Bo sings a song about how next time, he should watch the audience, instead of the audience only watching him. Shortly after, Bo appears naked under a spotlight. Being on the internet and performing on stage means you are always vulnerable and naked to the audience. Humiliation abounds. 

There are little parts of the special that strive to show that on the internet we reduce ourselves to one-dimensional caricatures, because that’s how these platforms work. The song “White Woman’s Instagram,” is a funny takedown of stereotypical white woman Instagram accounts, but halfway through the song Bo sings of a post where this hypothetical woman writes about her deceased mom, a touching, humanizing moment. But there’s discomfort here as well: this woman can only have an authentic, genuine expression of humanity in a space otherwise full of pictures of pumpkins and lattes. How could an Instagram page ever convey the complexity and three-dimensionality of someone? It can’t! We’re made for so much more than this! But this is all we have, so we have to settle for this lesser form of self-expression. This is a division of self, and that’s humiliation.

The last scene has Bo walking out of his house, then immediately trying to go back inside the house, but it’s locked. While he struggles to get back inside, a laugh track plays. This is the humiliation of being exposed to people, the humiliation of a parasocial relationship where you both desperately need the audience, and you also despise them. Inside is the best film to come out of the pandemic so far, and I think everyone will take something very different away from it.

– Madeleine D.

Luca

Pixar’s new film Luca is what you would get if Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid had a beautiful Italian child. While Luca is as richly animated as those films, does it have the same emotional depth and timeless quality they do?

Luca follows two sea monsters living on the coast of Italy. Luca (Jacob Tremblay) is shy and curious, fascinated with the human world but forbidden from exploring it by his parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan). He befriends Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who has been living on land in his human form for a while. Alberto helps Luca get the courage to run away from home and visit the nearby village, where they meet Giulia, a spunky young girl preparing to enter a local race. The boys join her racing team to make money to buy a Vespa, but their plans are threatened by the town bully and Luca’s parents, who come on land to find their son.

I’m sad to say that Luca is one of Pixar’s slightest, most underwhelming offerings. While last year’s Soul was ambitious but fell short of reaching its full potential, Luca doesn’t falter in telling its story because there’s not much story here at all. The simple tale about two boys, literally fishes out of the water, gaining acceptance from others and learning not to hide works well as a fable. I’m not saying it needed a more complex plot. But Pixar movies always have multiple layers of meaning, with a narrative aimed at kids and then deeper themes for adults. For example, Finding Nemo, like Luca, is about overprotective parents. In Finding Nemo however, Marlin’s fears are thoughtfully explored in a compelling way for adults, while Nemo’s storyline tells a story for kids about gaining independence. In Luca, Luca’s parents are mostly played for a joke.

Disappointingly, Luca is one-note, never able to balance more than one theme at a time. The first part of the movie is about Luca’s conflicted desire between obeying his parents and discovering more about the human world. Once he decides to explore the human world, this conflicting emotion is never revisited. Once he and Alberto explore the human world and Alberto becomes worried Luca will abandon him, they have one fight. Luca makes it up to Alberto by proving that he won’t abandon him, and all is resolved. The sea monsters are worried throughout the film that the humans will reject them, but after the only encounter where Alberto and Luca’s true identities are revealed, the humans accept them, and it’s completely resolved. A story can be simple while still having depth. But Luca feels like a story of bullet points, rather than a narrative woven together. 

Despite these issues, what keeps the film together is the atmosphere. After last summer, which didn’t feel like much of a summer at all due to COVID restrictions, there is something truly refreshing about seeing a movie that is rich with sensory details. You can feel the warmth of the sun beating down on the Italian Riviera! You can feel the cobblestones beneath your feet. You can almost taste the gelato! (Side note- I had pasta and gelato before watching, and I highly recommend it to get you into the mood to watch). This film made me really, really want to ride a Vespa and feel the wind in my hair as I roll down the Italian countryside. While I can’t see Luca being a timeless, rewatchable film, it is a pleasurable experience. If you have young children, or enjoy animated movies and want to celebrate summer, Luca is a charming way to pass the time. But raise an Italian soda with me: here’s to hoping Pixar gets its groove back soon.

-Madeleine D.

In The Heights

*Spoilers

“Immigrants, we get the job done!”

This line, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway juggernaut Hamilton, could just as easily come from In The Heights. In The Heights, the film adaptation of Miranda’s first musical (Hamilton is his second), chronicles the lives of several young people pursuing big dreams while living in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. 

Because of COVID, In The Heights’s theatrical release was pushed back a year, and now the film has unexpectedly found itself being released after Hamilton, which was released on Disney+ last summer. Hamilton’s movie release brought in a wave of new critique and examination on the musical about the American founding fathers. Even if you haven’t watched Hamilton (which I highly recommend!) you’ve probably heard about how it uses hip-hop and rap, and the cast is made up almost entirely of actors of color. One of the most interesting things about watching In The Heights is comparing the two works and seeing Miranda’s underlying interests and philosophies as an artist. Some observations:

  • Miranda’s love of the archetypal immigrant tale. In Hamilton, he presents Alexander Hamilton’s story of coming to America from Nevis as an immigrant story, highlighting how all Americans were originally immigrants from Britain/British colonies. In In The Heights, many characters are either first or second-generation Hispanic and Latino immigrants. The emotional show-stopping number “Paciencia Y Fe” is sung by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who tells the story of her mother bringing her to New York City from Cuba and their struggles. Miranda, born in New York City, is a second-generation immigrant; his parents are originally from Puerto Rico. 
  • The struggle between individual dreams vs looking out for the community. In The Heights has Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) desiring to go back to the Dominican Republic, but eventually he decides to stay in Washington Heights to maintain his father’s bodega, to be a role model to young Sonny, and to care for the neighborhood. In Hamilton, Alexander works tirelessly to build up America, but essentially abandons his wife and family and betrays many of his principles. It’s only his wife Eliza’s forgiveness and mercy towards him which allows for reconciliation with them before his death, and the play presents Alexander’s dreams for personal glory as only worthwhile if they’re in step with uplifting those around him. The play’s focus on the rest of the ensemble subtly subverts the “one great man of history” trope (although the focus on the founding fathers could be seen as actually enforcing that, but that’s another conversation). 
  • While there are certainly motifs and lyrics that are similar between the two, In The Height’s music is distinct from Hamilton’s through its use of Spanish and Latin-inspired music. While the Hamilton film is just a recording of the Broadway play, In The Heights makes the most of its film format with exciting cinematography and directorial choices. 

It’s the excellent directing and beautifully composed musical numbers that sold me on the film. There were times watching In The Heights that my mouth was open in awe. I was having a blast. If you are at all a fan of movie musicals, I think you’ll love In The Heights. And if you don’t like movie musicals… I feel sorry for you.

Since I’m writing this review a few weeks after its release, I can’t talk about the film without addressing the controversy that has soured the film’s run. The film has been accused of colorism because most of the cast are light-skinned actors, while the real neighborhood of Washington Heights has a high population of African American and Afro-Latinx people. Having lighter-skinned actors instead of darker-skinned actors is certainly not original to In The Heights– it’s a widespread Hollywood issue. But In The Heights is seeing more heat for it than most films do. I think partly it’s because movies that are centered on people of color are so rare, they’re more heavily criticized than movies with primarily white casts. In white-ensemble movies, it’s seen as a success just to get a few people of color in there, there’s not even space to consider colorism. This is becoming less true though, so perhaps one positive aspect of this controversy is that going forward movies will be more proactive against colorism. 

Another factor at play is the Lin-Manuel Miranda backlash which has built since the Hamilton movie release. Hamilton was genuinely groundbreaking in its mainstream success, and because of that success, it launched Miranda as the face of progressive politics in the mainstream’s perception of theater, and it was a role he embraced. But now he’s not progressive enough for progressives, and since In The Heights is an earlier work of his, there’s more to criticize (I feel this. Don’t go back and read any of my reviews pre-2018!).

While I do think the criticism is warranted (and Miranda has apologized) I also hate to see this movie taken down and all of its positive attributes forgotten. I think many people’s hopes and dreams were pinned on In The Heights, and it is impossible for a single film to carry an entire political agenda on its back. What is possible is for us as audience members to discerningly watch a film and hold in tension both its strengths and shortcomings.

As for In The Height’s strengths, outside of its direction, music, and the sheer joy and energy I felt watching it, there was a specific theme in the film I loved. The residents of Washington Heights face a variety of threats: gentrification, racism, anti-immigration sentiment, poverty. When they face a blackout, characters sing, “We are powerless,” referring not only to the blackout but to the powerlessness they feel in their lives from all of these issues. But Abuela Claudia stirs her family with these words: “[We] assert our dignity in small ways.” Abuela Claudia does this by telling the audience her story in “Paciencia Y Fe.” Daniela does this by encouraging the neighborhood to dance through the blackout in “Carnaval Del Barrio.” And the movie itself is asserting dignity to the characters, the cultures on display, and the neighborhood of Washington Heights by presenting it lovingly in every frame, in every line, in every verse. 

It reminded me of the Christian theological term Imago Dei, which is Latin for “Image of God.” It refers to Genesis 1:27, where we are told God created humans “in his image”. All humans are image-bearers of God, and that gives everyone inherent value and dignity. Movies like In The Heights are explicit exercises in seeing the Imago Dei in everyone, especially people who aren’t usually treated with dignity on the big screen. 

That’s something worth singing about.

-Madeleine D.

Cruella

Cruella, starring Emma Stone as the dog-killing Disney villainess, is the newest addition to Disney’s new live-action remake series. It reimagines Cruella de Vil into a young orphan named Estella, who loses her mother in a tragic Dalmatian-related accident and rises to the top of the 1970s London fashion scene. Estella creates the alter ego Cruella to face off against the formidable Baroness (Emma Thompson), the last person standing in Estella’s way to greatness.

Cruella is at its best when it is not trying to be a Cruella de Vil origin story. The movie excels when it’s a fashion heist movie and an exercise in opulent, campy drama. The shoehorned inclusion of Dalmatians, random references to the 101 Dalmatian film, awkwardly forced backstory of minor characters, and an attempt to set up a sequel derail what otherwise could be a quirky The Devil Wears Prada meets action-adventure heist movie.

Of course, we probably wouldn’t get a movie like Cruella without it being attached to a Disney IP. The Disney live-action remakes have been frustrating across the board because they have, at times, given opportunities to great filmmakers and actors and allowed for tremendous creativity and talent, but because they are attached to Disney and must have quadrant, mass-appeal, they can never really take risks. Cruella tiptoes the line of being edgy and weird, but can never really go for it because it’s a Disney film, so it ends up being as punk and revolutionary as a Hot Topic Store. And I enjoy a good trip to Hot Topic every now and then! There’s an audience for it. But I couldn’t watch Cruella without the nagging sensation that there was a stronger film within it.

That being said, there are good things in the film. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are both excellent, chewing scenery and taking the lacking screenplay and using sheer charisma to make the dialogue halfway compelling. The costumes really are marvelous. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Houser are the hearts of the film. It’s an energetic and fast-paced movie that is a lot of fun to watch, no matter how unsatisfying it ultimately is. 

The big question though: does Cruella redeem the infamous villain? How evil does Cruella allow Cruella to be? Does it have anything interesting to say about Cruella and her wickedness?

The friend I saw the film with had an interesting remark. She said that it was “post-modern”, because the movie is all about Estella shedding her identity to create a whole new one. She uses fashion to create and embody this new persona, and then– spoiler!– literally kills off her old self. One postmodern view of identity posits that there isn’t one true, solid self. We aren’t defined by how we were made. We’re defined by how we make and present ourselves. We’re always changing; we’re a product of circumstance, and therefore can design ourselves however we like. True authenticity is actually a type of performance, the performance of what you want and believe yourself to really be. 

So it’s fitting that all of these pieces- fashion, self-creation, individual moral relativism, and an origin story– all come together in Cruella. Here, Cruella gets to be sympathetic and embrace her fabulously evil side. She gets to create a new identity for herself and still be loved by her old friends, no matter how poorly she treats them. She gets to be an inspirational girlboss and trample on others for her own career success. She gets to be known as the villain who kills puppies and this movie completely cuts out her hurting any animals. She gets to have revenge on those who wrong her and never receive any lasting consequences for her own evil actions. In these contradictions, Cruella presents a fantasy for the audience, since most of us also want to be able to behave “brilliant, bad, and a little mad,” and still imagine ourselves to be a redeemable antihero. And Disney gets to make a movie about a villain and make her decent enough to sell merchandise!

-Madeleine D.

Top Twenty Movies About Oklahoma

A guest review by Jonathan Dorst

With the recent news of the Matt Damon film Stillwater (filmed in and around Stillwater, OK) getting a July release date, and the news that Martin Scorsese has begun filming Killers of the Flower Moon in the Pawhuska/Bartlesville area with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, it got me thinking about movies that are about my adopted home state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma has had its share of well-known actors– including Alfre Woodard, Kristin Chenoweth, Megan Mullaly, James Marsden, James Garner, Jennifer Jones, Vera Miles, Van Heflin, Ron Howard, Bill Hader, Tim Blake Nelson, Tracy Letts, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gary Busey, Wes Studi, and Will Rogers– but it has not had a plethora of movies made about it. The ones that have been made, however, include several that are fairly iconic, so it seems like a good time to rank the 20 best Oklahoma movies made so far. 

For starters, we’ll just consider feature films, not documentaries– apologies to Okie Noodling, Unlikely Family, and Tiger King. Also, movies simply filmed in Oklahoma (like UHF) or tangentially related (think Ruprecht yelling “Oh boy, Oklahoma, Oklahoma” in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) don’t count if they’re not essentially about Oklahoma. There are still a number of stories that could, and should, be told on screen about Oklahoma, including Clara Luper and the Katz Department store lunch sit-ins, Stanley Draper and the expansion of Oklahoma City, Stillwater’s Farm and the birth of Red Dirt Music, and the 2012 OKC Thunder. But for now, check out the stories that have made it to the big screen.

20. Home, James (2014)Native Oklahoman Jonathan Rossetti directs and stars in this story of 20-somethings in Tulsa (filmed in Tulsa) trying to figure out life together and by themselves. 

19. Mekko (2015)- Sterlin Harjo’s picture of homeless and vulnerable Native Americans. Much of it was shot in the block surrounding Tulsa’s historic Circle Cinema in the Kendall-Whittier district.

18. To the Stars (2019)- A thoughtful picture of 1960’s Oklahoma and outcast teenagers (and adults) trying to survive. Filmed in and around Oklahoma.

17. The Oklahoma Kid (1939)James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart star in this story about the 1889 Land Run, outlaws, family, and the establishment of cities and order in the West. Shot in California.

16. Oklahoma (1965)- Probably the first thing people think about, after country music, when they think about entertainment coming from the 46th state. Catchy songs but very strange in places. Shot in Arizona (why?).

15. Silkwood (1983)- Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Karen Silkwood in this true story. Filmed in Texas and New Mexico.

14. Where the Red Fern Grows (1974 & 2003)- The classic coming-of-age story of a boy who hunts raccoons better than anyone in Oklahoma, or Arkansas for that matter. The original (filmed in Vian and Talequah, OK) has a lot of country charm, the remake has Dave Matthews and a much bigger budget. 

13. Cimarron (1931 & 1960)- A Best Picture winner, this is the seminal movie about the Land Run. The 1960 remake might be an improvement, but it didn’t win Best Picture, so we’ll stick with the original (although neither was filmed in Oklahoma).

12. Far and Away (1992)- Ron Howard’s epic saga of Irish immigrants surviving the land rush has abundant Irish clichés and all the charisma of (then married) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Most of the film was filmed in Ireland, with the land rush scenes filmed in Montana.

11. Twister (1996)Filmed in Wakita and lots of other parts of Oklahoma, this 1996 movie is still a top-tier disaster movie with a great cast.

10. Rumble Fish (1983)- Coppola’s follow-up to The Outsiders, a grittier version of young adult life in Tulsa in the mid-20th century based on the novel by SE Hinton. Filmed in, with tons of great footage of, Tulsa.

9. In Old Oklahoma (aka War of the Wildcats) (1943)- With John Wayne in a comedic role, this 1943 film imagined the feuds over oil, with a dash of romance. Filmed everywhere but Oklahoma.

8. Leaves of Grass (2009)- An hilarious tale written by Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson about twin brothers from Oklahoma (both played by Edward Norton) who have taken very different paths in life but are brought back together near Tulsa for nefarious purposes. Filmed in Louisiana.

7. Hang ‘Em High (1968) One of Clint Eastwood’s best Westerns, this is a meditation on revenge and the development of the justice system in the American West. Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona.

6. Oklahoma Crude (1973)- A similar premise to the Susan Hayward film Tulsa, but a more realistic (and cruder) vision of an independent woman, played by Faye Dunaway, trying to take on the big oil companies. Like many older films, this one was all filmed in California.

5. To the Wonder (2012)- Terrence Malick’s vision of cross-cultural romance, with Bartlesville, OK playing as big a role in Ben Affleck’s character’s love life as Paris, France. Some scenes were also shot in Pawhuska and Tulsa.

4. True Grit (1969 & 2010)- A classic Western about doing what’s right, no matter how hard. I prefer the Coen brothers version with Jeff Bridges (and the excellent Hailee Steinfeld) over the John Wayne version, even though none of it was filmed in Oklahoma.

3. August, Osage County (2013)- An all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale (and Ewan McGregor, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Juliette Lewis…), anchors this funny and heartbreaking story that reminds us that we can’t choose our family, only how we treat them. Shot on location in Osage County, OK.

2. Grapes of Wrath (1940)- John Steinbeck’s iconic novel about the Dust Bowl and the Okie migration to California adapted in gorgeous black-and-white by John Ford with Henry Fonda. Some scenes were filmed in McAlester and Sayre, OK, but most of it was filmed in California.

1. The Outsiders (1983)- Francis Ford Coppola’s classic adaptation of Tulsan SE Hinton’s novel of greasers and socs. Filmed in Tulsa, it was a launching pad for a bunch of great young actors.

Honorable Mentions: Tex, Come Sunday, Return of the Bad Men, Four Sheets to the Wind, Where the Heart Is, Tulsa.

Others: Oklahoma Territory, Into the Storm, Thunderstruck, Home in Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Cyclone, Bringing Up Bobby, Barking Water, Keys to Tulsa (awful), Terror at Tenkiller (worse than awful).

Triple Feature: Raya and the Last Dragon, Justice League, and Godzilla vs Kong

I’m back!

April was a hectic month, but never fear! I did watch movies, and I’ve got some thoughts on these recent blockbusters and streaming hits to help you navigate what you should watch next, from the latest Disney family fare to the mythical 4-hour superhero epic to the monster mash that helped re-open the box-office.

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon, which did a simultaneous theatrical and Disney+ premium access release, follows young Raya on a search to find the last dragon in her fantasy world of Kumandra in order to save her father and the world from monstrous creatures called the Drunn.

Out of recent Disney movies, Raya has the most in common to Moana, with a weak pseudo-villain who later becomes a friend, lovable misfits accompanying the protagonist, and rejection of former Disney princess tropes like a romantic interest or ballgowns (and unlike Moana, Raya doesn’t even have musical numbers!). Both films are also set in an amalgamation of vast non-Western regions- Moana of Pacific Islander cultures, Raya of South Asian countries. There is an epic fantasy feel and scope to Raya that is ambitious for Disney (I’d say on par with or exceeding Frozen 2), although as many have pointed out, the world-building is similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been an influence on the fantasy genre across the board (such as the recent Netflix series adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone).

All of those other pieces of media- Moana, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Frozen 2, and Shadow and Bone– are hits with audiences, and Raya is just as likeable as those other films. However, I think it’s more unmemorable, for a simple reason. Because the film tries to cover a lot of ground in complex world-building, it’s so fast-paced that in order to get its numerous messages across- admirable ones about trust and cooperation and forgiveness- these themes must be talked about, rather than shown. Characters talk about the importance of trusting, cooperating, and forgiving one another, but the examples of that happening in the story are rushed. We are told emotions without seeing the characters fully feel them, which means we can’t feel them deeply either. The animation is beautiful and the voicework is strong, but they don’t service a story that can stand up on its own without being overly explained to the audience. This makes Raya feel like it was made for a younger audience than that for which it really was made.

The Snyder Cut

Mamma Mia! Here we go again!

That’s right, 2017’s Justice League is back, and I sat down and watched all of the new 4 hours of it. And I’m here to report that…. It’s fine! It’s better than the original Joss Whedon version (“Josstice League”).

If you like Zack Snyder’s work and his aesthetics, you will love this. This is an auteur completely unbridled, and it means the film has a distinct flavor that differentiates itself from other DC movies, even Snyder’s own. Snyder is not my personal cup of tea, but I see the appeal. He excels at grandeur, using the camera to worships its subject. His visual style is a perfect fit with comic book panel styling, which similarly venerates its god-like subjects. And he puts the extra time to good use giving more story to Cyborg, who becomes the emotional core of the movie, removing the sexism towards Wonder Woman present in Josstice League, and expanding the story so it’s not as rushed or slapped together as it previously was. Most of my issues with the original film– that everything felt hasty and half-baked, unfinished CGI, lame humor– are all fixed. But those problems being fixed doesn’t mean this is an enjoyable four hours.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with the saga of why this “Snyder Cut” came about, I’ll give you the short version. During the production of Justice League, Zack Snyder’s family suffered a terrible tragedy that caused him to leave the film. Joss Whedon, hot off of the newest Avengers movie (my beloved Age of Ultron), was brought in to finish the film. When it was released with negative reviews, the legend of a “Snyder Cut,” a cut of the film that was solely Zack Snyder’s creative vision, unsullied by the studio or Whedon, became to emerge online in fan communities. It continued to grow as more details of both Snyder’s original film came to light, along with more and more ugly allegations against Warner Brother executives and Joss Whedon on the set, primarily from Ray Fischer (who plays Cyborg). In late 2019 the actors took to social media to voice their support for Zack and the cut. This coincided with the development of HBO Max streaming service, which needed original content to entice subscribers. Why not bring back Zack and give him money to complete his original film and serve the fanbase and distract from the Joss Whedon allegations and build up HBO Max? So that’s why we have the Snyder Cut. It’s a juicy Hollywood story, it does make it feel some justice has been served, and it means we will never hear the end of “Release the ___ cut of ___ Movie!”. 

Ultimately, the story about this film is more interesting than the film itself. For fans of DC comics and Snyder, The Snyder Cut is a worthy reward, but I can’t recommend it for anyone else.

Godzilla vs Kong

Is Godzilla vs Kong the best movie of 2021? Ok, maybe that’s hyperbolic (although hyperbole is in line with a movie like this!). But, I’ll argue that it’s the most fun movie of 2021 so far. I’m not usually a fan of monster action movies, and I haven’t seen the other Godzilla or Kong movies. But there are two reasons why I think Godzilla vs Kong worked for me. 

First, we came here to see two CGI monsters duke it out, and director Adam Wingard understood the assignment. We get three epic fights, the first of which could be studied in film school. We have Kong chained down on the boat, unable to fight Godzilla, who’s already at an advantage in the water. Their ancient rivalry has been established; there can only be one winner. The stakes have been set. Our human characters are helpless until, in the eleventh hour, they’re able to help turn the tables of the fight. There’s character development, tension, and suspense. Poetic cinema.

Speaking of the humans, they aren’t annoying! Okay, some of them are. But while such a large cast of characters means no one is well fleshed-out, it also does mean we don’t have to spend too long with any one group of them, so you won’t get bored as the movie jumps between them. Everybody knows what kind of movie they are in and thay all do an excellent job. Rebeca Hall, Kaylee Hottle (joining the proud cinematic tradition of silent young girls), and Brian Tyree Henry are standouts. 

Godzilla vs Kong is fun and silly without feeling phoned in. It’s a love letter to monster movies and good! We need it. While the pandemic continues to rage on worldwide, there is no better time to see a movie that is both escapist fun and reminds us of what the pandemic has taught us- which is that history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.

-Madeleine D

The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 2/2)

With the release of Notos in 2017, The Oh Hellos set out to create a four-part series inspired by the Anemoi, the Greek gods of the four winds. Each album is named after one of the gods, and is inspired by their personalities and legends. The theme tying the four albums together is the question of “Where did my ideas come from?” These albums find The Oh Hellos examining the messy intersection of their faith and culture, the way white nationalism has bled into American Christianity, and the process of growth and sanctification. They draw heavily from the prophets of the Old Testament, echoing these prophet’s uncompromising calls for justice and repentance.The symbol of a wheel also unites the four albums. The band connects the ideas of changing winds and seasons as they ponder what it takes to break free of sinful cycles, both personally and corporately.

Notos and Eurus: Recognizing Patterns & The Beginning of Wisdom

Notos (2017) begins with “On the Mountain Tall,” which draws from the encounter the prophet Elijah has with God in 1 King 19:11-13. The song makes a comparison between all of the fearsome signs Elijah saw– the windstorm, earthquake, and fire– and the way religion is used to spark “a holy war” and sow deceit, discord, and hate. But like how God was not in those fearsome acts, but speaks to Elijah in a small voice, so does God here to the narrator: “Whisper to me words in a voice so small/Like the one that to Elijah called/Quiet as a candle and bright as the morning sun.” The chorus has the narrator reflecting on the momentous task God has called them to: “I know you want me to be afraid/I know you want me to love you.” Here we see the beginning of a motif of the album and the whole series: God as someone to be feared. He is gentle and gracious with his people (as emphasized in the two previous albums). But he does require something of us, and his justice and righteous anger should be feared by sinners. Notos sees God as a fearsome presence and the narrator struggles with anxiety towards him.  

Next is “Torches,” which goes straight into detailing this “holy war.” “Torches” evokes the imagery of a mob, and, specifically, of the tiki torches used by white nationalists in the 2017 Charlottesville protests to detail how divisive the world, and especially the Church, has become, singing “Ignorance will make brothers of us all” and how our sin and our fear of others means that “Over and over, again/We keep that old wheel turning.” The wheel here represents patterns we can’t break out of and intergenerational sins we can’t escape.

Constellations has the narrator reflect on how he has tried to interpret his experiences, but his lack of perspective has caused him to misinterpret them to be hateful towards others. He has relied so heavily on his preconceived notions that he is resistant to change, yet “Like constellations imploding in the night/Everything is turning, everything is turning/And the shapes that you drew may change beneath a different light/And everything you thought you knew will fall apart, but you’ll be alright.”

Notos” uses the imagery of a hurricane to convey the turning of ideas, power, politics, and emotions. Change is coming, and it’s scary for those who were content, but there is also the potential for a cleansing power to occur, like God restarting the Earth after the flood. If the Church has made a mess of things, God will baptize us again, and that’s something to celebrate, not fear. The album ends with “New River,” which finishes this thought, singing: Well, it’ll rain for forty days and nights, and nothing you do can slow the rising tides/But the river takes her shape from every tempest she abides/And like her, you’ll be made new again.”

Eurus (2018) begins with “O Sleeper.” The last album ended with a flood bringing about cleansing change, and this album continues this idea of God changing us and the world in sometimes scary, unpredictable ways so as to overturn our sins to restore things as they should be. The song ends with: “By God, I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” This is a recommitment to the work of change, of becoming vulnerable and allowing God to chip away at them until real righteousness can flow out of us and restore us to our true nature. This is a glimpse of glorification, of humans in their perfected state and Earth itself made into the New Heavens and the New Earth. “Grow” points back to Notos’s “New River” and tells of how we must sit back and allow change to happen to us: “Get your feathers ruffled/You got a lot to learn, if you’d just settle down/And let the river run its course.” 

Passerine” ends the album by bringing to the forefront what has been lurking in the background of the past two albums: critiques of the modern American church. “Passerine” muses on how the narrator’s fellow Christians have become like the dominant culture. They are compared to “centurions,” who are building the fires for “that Greco-Roman dream” (= American Dream). The narrator laments that while she thought she was following Christ, she realizes that by following these legalistic and hypocritical Christians, she “can’t shake this feeling that I was only/Pushing the spear into your side again.” The song ratchets up to a loud, anthemic chorus with the whole band sing-screaming: “When he comes a-knocking at my door/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?/When the cold wind rolls in from the north/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?” The sound is of overwhelming fear. Like the scariness of the flood/baptism change at the end of Notos, Eurus also ends with spiritual anxiety, a fear of God and what he’s going to do with us and our sin. It is the sound of a guilty conscience hearing the judge’s footsteps round the corner. The mention of the “cold wind” ushers in Boreas.

Boreas and Zephyrus: Humbled through Suffering into True Maturity

Boreas (2020), despite being winter-themed and about sadness and suffering, is full of tenderness, both musically and lyrically, providing relief to the fear shown in Eurus. It is scary to know that we are going to be disciplined and changed, but oh! God is good to us. The album opens with “Cold,” which introduces the winter imagery. “Cold” ends with a summary of the previous albums; the narrator says that she has relied on wealth for her security: “You paved your Hades/With precious stone/Made an hеirloom to patricians and the rich alone.” The narrator decides she’s not going to do this anymore, she’s ready to do the work of letting God change her: “Well, I’m not quite ready/To turn to bone/To petrify the shred of life/I’m holding onto.” 

Rose” is all about the Church, laying out The Oh Hellos’s loving rebuke of the modern American (white, Evangelical) church. Lines like “Your dowry, it ain’t fooling/The pyrite is showing through/It won’t buy you that empty tomb” show how the Bride of Christ has contented herself with fool’s gold rather than Christ, and how she has been promiscuous to another, a “leviathan groom” (call back to Dear Wormwood’s “Where is your Rider”). “Rose” ends on a melancholy note, saying that there is pain on our way– both the persecution Jesus promised all believers will endure, but also discipline for sin– “So lay compress to the aching/Of your body made for breaking/We’ve got a lot of breaking left to do.”

In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that the pain she is undergoing make her a better person: “Maybe then my brеath could embody/A wildfire starting/I’d sweep up the forеst floor/And my body breathe life into the corners/Be a darker soil… In the end all I hope for/Is to be a bit of warmth for you/When there’s not a lot of warmth left/To go around.” Glowing” ends the album on another bittersweet note. It acknowledges the difficulty of these winter seasons of life. But “Glowing” also promises that “It would feel like rebirth/Out of some kind of dying/To see yourself so glowing.”

Zephyrus (2020) finds the narrator in a much more secure position, now more humbled and gracious, self-aware and rooted in God’s love and goodness. The narrator has undergone the winter season and endured trials and pain, and God has used that time to turn her into someone more beautiful, giving, and free. The opening number, “Rio Grande,” tells us that the narrator has rededicated him/herself to the act from “Oh Sleeper.” In “Oh Sleeper,” the narrator sings: “I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” In “Rio Grande,” they sing: “Oh, maybe I’m naive for thinking/That a mountain so stubborn can move/But if I’m a mountain moving/I think maybe you can be, too.” Now the narrator is thinking of other people as well and is extending love to them.

In “Theseus,” a river goes from representing scary, abrupt change, into representing peace (which is stable but not static): “Oh, that peace like a river/Always going, but never getting.” This brings back the theme from “Grow” of change being the best place for people to be in, because that’s when we grow. They sing of this healing: “It’s gonna hurt like hell to become well/But if we set the bone straight/It’ll mend/It’ll fix/And we’ll be well.”

Zephyrus” continues the thoughts of “Boreas.” In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that she become kindling that will bring warmth to others. In “Zephyrus,” she speaks in garden-based metaphors of caretaking and love for others: “I wanna help mother up an orchard/From a seed/Up through sapling” and “Break the bonds/I’ve been holding onto/Let ‘em soften me…Till every part that I am made of/Waters deep/To the roots/Of something greener.” Soap” continues this thought, with the narrator now speaking to another character, telling them that “I think that you’re worth keeping around/I think that you’re worth holding onto…It’s gonna hurt like hell/But we’re going to be well/I’ll give you my best shot.” Personal growth is painful, but it softens you into someone that can better relate to and serve others. 

Rounds” closes the album and the total series, once again returning to the imagery of cycles and wheels. “Rounds” has the narrator realizing the cycle they have just gone through over the course of the four albums- conviction, repentance, discipline, and growth- will happen over and over and over again, but each time they will get more stable: “Round, around, a round again/Will you start where I end?/Am I still speaking?/Yeah I’m long in the wind/I’ll go on and on and on again/If my chest don’t cave in.” 

In conclusion: The Oh Hellos are good, I highly recommend listening to them! I don’t know where the band will go next. I think they could explore any of these subjects again, or they could go more in-depth into songs about suffering or examinations of the church. They could mine more from the scriptures (a concept album retelling Bible stories in song? Yes please!). Or they could move more towards glorification, imaging heaven and holiness and what we have to look forward to.

Happy Easter. He has risen indeed!

– Madeleine D.

Thank you to Genius.com for lyric annotations 

Sources and further reading: 

https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/01/23/oh-hellos-folk-rock-band-thats-not-afraid-address-politics-or-religion

https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2017/11/15/564156775/song-premiere-the-oh-hellos-torches

The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 1/2)

I’d like to take a small detour from movies to discuss a band whose music has recently captured my imagination: The Oh Hellos, a folk-rock duo from Texas led by siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath and a rotation of bandmates. Maggie and Tyler are Christians, and their faith is tightly wrapped into all of their music. Their music does not sound or read like many mainstream Christian artists, instead, they borrow from mythology and history as well as scripture to tell stories with skillful musicianship. Like an Oh Hellos cinematic universe, there is a continual storyline across the body of their work– two full-length albums and four EPs– which is what I want to explore here. 

This storyline is that of one narrator’s Christian walk, from conversion into spiritual maturity. Or, to use theological terms: Justification– being made right in the eyes of God; Sanctification– the ongoing process of being made more like Christ; and Glorification– the final transformation of believers into eternal beings united with God forever. I’m going to look at how their first two albums tell the story of justification and sanctification on an individual level, and then how their four EP’s tell the story of corporate sanctification with glimpses into glorification. After reading, I hope you will be inspired to listen to this band’s fantastic work, and enjoy the rich (and true!) story they tell.  

Through the Deep Dark Valley: The Prodigal Son & Justification

Through the Deep Dark Valley (2012) retells Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing from it the universal story of how every believer and, in turn, all of humanity, has broken away from God our loving father, and will eventually make their way back into his forgiving arms.

The album opens with “The Valley,” which sets up the premise. The band bellows: “We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked…We were born in the shadow of the crimes of our fathers/ Blood was our inheritance/No, we did not ask for this/ Will you lead me?…We came down to the water and we begged for forgiveness.” Being born in sin, we needed to be led away from it and saved. But who will save us? What will that journey from sin entail? “Inheritance,” “water,” and “forgiveness” are all recurring symbols.

The main meat of the album is a series of seven songs that directly retell the parable, beginning with the track “Second Child, Restless Child,” which draws up a portrait of the narrator, the younger son who desires to run from his father’s home and pursue freedom: “See, I was born a restless child/And I could hear the world outside calling me.”Wishing Well” tells of the son experiencing the freedom he thought he wanted, yet coming to the end of himself: “Curse my restless wandering feet/Prone to wander endlessly.” These lyrics are a reference to the old hymn “Come Thou Fount,” which has the line prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” References to “Come Thou Fount” litter the album. “Wishing Well” closes with the son realizing all of his adventures have left him feeling empty. The son has nothing left, both physically and spiritually, having squandered his father’s inheritance and love.

In Memoriam” is the climax of the younger son’s story. He returns home and is fully embraced by his father. The song explores the son’s feelings of shame and guilt: “But I’m sure I’ll find you waiting there for me/And by the time I blink, I’ll see your wild arms swinging/Just to meet me in the middle of the road/And you’ll hold me like you’ll never let me go…But you are far too beautiful to love me…Heaven knows I’m prone to leave the only God I should have loved/Yet you’re far too beautiful to leave me.” Note again the use of “prone to leave” as a reference to “Come Thou Fount.” Also note how the use of “beautiful” goes from explaining why God should not love us to explaining his mercy. 

The Lament of Eustace Scrubb is next (and is my favorite The Oh Hellos song). The title comes from the character Eustace Scrubb from the fifth book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Oh Hello’s love for C.S. Lewis drives their second album, which Maggie Heath describes as “basically C.S. Lewis fanfiction.” But we’re not there yet! Eustace Scrubb has a radical conversion experience in Dawn Treader, and the parallels between him and the prodigal son (and, by default, all of us) are sung here as the narrator asks forgiveness from his brother and father. This song ends with the lines “When I touch the water/They tell me I could be set free,” evoking baptism. 

I Was Wrong” concludes the younger son/narrator asking for forgiveness. It also ties in the larger story of man’s rejection of God starting in the garden: “And I was torn from the start/I was torn between my God and my Father…/As I took from the tree that was rotting…Now I’ll hide my shame with woven leaves.” “I Have Made Mistakes” comes after forgiveness as an acknowledgment that “I have made mistakes, I continue to make them” and detailing how, even though the narrator knows he will continue to sin and be prone to wandering, he will come back again and again to repentance, and “Nothing is a waste, if you learn from it”.

The Truth is a Cave,” I think, could be read as from the Older Brother’s perspective if the older brother came to repentance himself. This narrator sings of trying so desperately “To be the child that you wanted,” that he wore himself out with staunch obedience and duty, becoming self-righteous and legalistic so that “the truth became a tool, that I held in my hand/And I wielded it but did not understand.” But he comes to realize that instead of God/his father asking him to do everything, God/father has already done it, and simply calls out to the son for a personal relationship. “Valley- Reprise repeats many of the same lyrics as the beginning, but ends with “Still you lead me, never leave me/Never leave me” and then an instrumental cover of “Come Thou Fount.” 

Dear Wormwood: Leaving your abusive master & the beginning of sanctification

Dear Wormwood (2015) is inspired by C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters (1942) is written as a series of letters from experienced demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (also a demon) on how to better tempt his human project. In the album, each song is written like a letter between two parties. Typically, it is the narrator versus an abusive power. So it’s like the human is speaking back to his demons, his personal Wormword and Screwtape. After all, sin is our abusive master who we were slaves to, and the work of sanctification is the daily work of resisting again and again the sins of our flesh. We are not freed from all of our sins the moment we’re converted. It is an ongoing process; the three steps forward, two steps back of progress. But it’s not just enough to leave behind your sin– you must find something or someone more glorious to replace it with. 

After an instrumental “Prelude the album opens with “Bitter Water,” which has the narrator acknowledging that his/her relationship with the other party is toxic, but still desirable, singing: “I still taste you on my lips/Lovely bitter water/The terrible fire of old regret is honey on my tongue…I know I shouldn’t love you but I do.” Like a bad ex, we have sins we cling to that we know are destroying us, but we can’t imagine living without them.

There Beneath” has the narrator see a king character (Jesus) being presented as an alternative thing to worship and love–a beautiful, more worthy thing. This sets the stage for the narrator to finally end/leave the abusive relationship.” In “Exeunt,” the narrator ends the relationship, singing: “Even when you hunt me with ire, relentless/Batter down my door when you find me defenseless/I will not abide all your raging and reaving/I have set my mind and my will: I am leaving.”

Caesar” goes back to focus on the narrator’s new love and zeal for Jesus, the new and better ruler and object of affection. “Caesar” uses crucifixion imagery to set up the second part of the album, which is retelling how Jesus’s death and resurrection killed Death itself, Death and sin being our ultimate enemy. “Caesar” introduces a three-song storyline dealing with this death to Death, beginning with “This Will End,” which sees the narrator wondering if the afterlife is going to be worth the pain that comes with living. He comes to the conclusion that even though there is “endless battery” between him and sin/evil, there is a “kind of love” that the sin/evil cannot even comprehend, the love of Christ. This directly sets up the two-parter of “Pale White Horse” and “Where is Your Rider.”

Pale White Horse” depicts Death as a horse, with Satan as its rider, drawing upon Revelation 6:8: “Neither plague nor famine tempered my courage/Nor did raids make me cower/But his translucent skin/Made me shiver deep within my bones/It was a pale white horse/With a crooked smile/And I knew it was my time.Where is Your Rider has the narrator gloating that even though Death may kill him, this horse is riderless. Satan has been defeated! Death has no lasting power against Christ. The band gloats: “The shadow of Hades is fading/For He has cast down Leviathan, the tyrant, and the horse and rider/Where is your rider?” It ends with a celebration of Christ, proclaiming “He has hoisted out of the mire every child/So lift your voice with timbrel and lyre/We will abide, we will abide, we will abide.” The lyrics have multiple allusions to Revelation and apocalyptic literature, along with references to 1st Corinthians 15:55-57: “‘O death, where is your victory?/O death, where is your sting?’”

Dear Wormwood” is a return to the original concept of letters, with this titular song tying all of the themes of the album together. The narrator directly confronts his demon and calls out how the demon has worked through the narrator’s life: “You have taught me well to sit and wait/Planning without acting/Steadily becoming what I hate.” But he finally calls out, “I know who you are now,” and “Now I understand you…And I name you my enemy…/I want to be more than this devil inside of me” The album ends with “Thus Always to Tyrants,” which sings that while there will always be evil powers and sin, a victory is coming and it’s worth waiting for. 

These two albums focus on the individual’s faith. In the next four EP’s, The Oh Hellos move into examining collective, corporate faith. Themes of power and abuse come into the forefront as the band reckons with the way the Church has responded to political upheaval and has compromised the Gospel. We’ll explore that in part

-Madeleine D.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, and it doesn’t disappoint. Outstanding performances by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You) ground the story of Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), an informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in Chicago and helped the FBI kill chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) in 1969. 

As an alumnus of the Oklahoma educational system, I was never taught about the Black Panthers other than they were on the “wrong side” of the civil rights movement and were diametrically opposed to Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent approach. This, of course, not only neuters King, who was quite radical, but also ignores the complexities of the Black Panthers and erases the good they did.  

So I went into Judas and the Black Messiah knowing very little about anything. If you are more familiar and educated on this subject, you may find more things to take issue with, especially when it comes to Fred Hampton’s portrayal. As my first real introduction to the subject, though, I was riveted. The movie balances the politics and violence with tender moments which humanize Hampton to flesh out the story and create a three-dimensional look at this period in Hampton’s life and career. The story honors Hampton, but it does not completely heroize or villanize him and the Panthers. 

However, the film struggles between being a straight biopic of Hampton or an FBI crime movie, and caught in the middle is O’Neal, who as a result, is not fleshed out very well. O’Neal’s motivations as a character feel weak and under-baked, but Lakeith Stanfield mostly overcomes these problems with the script through his sheer charisma and expressiveness. And speaking of Stanfield, the best part of Judas and the Black Messiah are the performances, and all three leads are excellent. Daniel Kaluuya brings a feverish intensity and equal vulnerability to his role, and Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent continues to nail the role of creepy “nice” guy. Kaluuya and Stanfield have both been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and I think either would be deserving of a win (although it makes more sense for Kaluuya to be in the Best Actor category). 

It’s hard not to speak of the film as being “timely” in light of the reignited national conversation about police brutality over last summer with the killing of George Floyd (and the upcoming trial of officer Derek Chauvin). Yet maybe the most effective part of the film is reminding us these events were not part of the distant past, a history we are repeating. Fred Hampton’s son and Hampton’s fiancée Deborah Johnson appear at the end of the movie. This was 52 years ago. It’s not the past, it’s the present that we continue to wrestle with. 


Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters

-Madeleine D.

Top 10 Movies of 2020

Three months into 2021, and despite some good news (Covid vaccines!), there has already been plenty of evidence that 2021 will continue to be just as strange as 2020. However, while we hope 2021 will be different when it comes to movies and theaters, let us also look back and celebrate the movies that helped 2020 suck less. As always, my criteria for this top 10 list:

  1. How much I enjoyed the film and how much it stuck with me.
  2. How “good” of a film it is, in terms of craft and use of the medium.
  3. Cultural significance and relevance

I have not yet seen: The Father and Promising Young Woman. And as a note: while the Oscars have widened their eligibility window to includes some films released in 2021, I will be keeping my list to films that were released during the 2020 calendar year in the United States.

Honorable Mentions: The Trial of the Chicago 7, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sound of Metal, News of the World, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Athlete A, Time, Bad Education, Run, The Old Guard, Nomadland, and One Night in Miami 

10. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead is a strange little documentary. The premise is wonderfully morbid: a filmmaker has her aging father stage a bunch of ways he could die as a way for both of them to process the end of his life. Along with being an honest look at dementia and a celebration of a man’s life, Dick Johnson is Dead looks death straight in the face in a way that we so rarely do in American culture. Memento mori. 

9. Minari

While I have never been apart of a Korean family in the 1980s that moved to Arkansas to start a farm, Minari feels both so intimate and universal that I feel like I have. While the film fails to have a satisfying ending, the superb ensemble cast and excellent directing makes Minari a highlight of the year.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t do much to transform August Wilson’s play into a film, but despite the lacking direction, the performances (including Chadwick Boseman’s last) and the writing are just too good to overlook. It has several things in common with Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, which I also debated putting here. One Night transforms its theater/play roots into something more cinematic, but it too has its historical characters embodying warring ideologies about Black uplift, performance, artistry, and autonomy. Both are excellent, but in the end, I simply enjoyed Ma Rainey and its stylishness a bit more.

7. Herself

Like Driveways (which is further down on my list) Herself is about neighborliness and community. It follows Sandra (Clare Dunne), a woman who escapes her abusive husband with her two daughters to start a new life. Sandra decides to build her own house, and must rely on the help of strangers and estranged friends to get the job done. Commentary on well-meaning but often restricting social services simmer under the more-important emotional story of a woman rebuilding her life with the support of others.

6. The Invisible Man

I debated between putting The Invisible Man or Run here, as I loved both of these female-led thrillers. In the end, I chose The Invisible Man because I was just so impressed with the creativity of this retelling of the H.G Wells story and how it becomes an examination of domestic abuse, gaslighting, and the psychology of victimhood. Elizabeth Moss and her agony carry the whole film.

5. Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love is a masterclass in acting by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. Neeson and Manville play an older married couple who get a breast cancer diagnosis. The film follows treatment and the stresses it puts on their relationship. Ordinary Love is an intimate look at a relationship between two characters you desperately want to protect, which makes every little blow devastating. It made me feel multitudes. 

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield

This was easily the best movie-going experience I’ve had this year (in part because I actually got to see this in theaters, just a few weeks before my town’s Regal Theater closed indefinitely). A quirky and whimsical adaptation that does right by the source material, The Personal History of David Copperfield was an unexpected delight.

3. The Assistant

The Assistant follows a young assistant (Julia Gardner) to a film producer as she struggles with what to do when she realizes her boss is sexually assaulting other women. We see our protagonist in an ethical dilemma where there is no way to do the right thing without being punished. It and Athlete A are the best films, I think, to have come out of the #MeToo movement, with The Assistant giving a clear-eyed view of the complex power dynamics within the film industry in a subtle, unflinching way.

2. Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You reminds me of 2019’s Uncut Gems, in that both are equally stressful films to watch. However, while Uncut Gems is about a man ruining his own life through terrible decisions, Sorry We Missed You sees an English family make every right decision they can, yet continually be pummeled by circumstance and external forces, never able to get ahead no matter how hard they try. The film is not explicitly political, but I still think it is the most political film of the year by showing the plight of the working class and the traps of the gig economy. It probably won’t get the same awards attention as Parasite, last year’s Oscar-winning class-conscious film, but it certainly deserves your attention. 

1. Driveways

Like Ordinary Love and Herself, Driveways is a drama with a small cast of characters, and here, the stakes are even smaller. Following a single mother and her son as they try to clean out her dead sister’s house to sell, Driveways is a meditation on neighborliness, loneliness, and intergenerational connection. It’s a gentle, sweet parable that encourages us to set aside our fear of strangers and pursue relationships with them. In a year where we were divided not only ideologically, but physically, Driveways felt exceptionally poignant. 

-Madeleine D.